One of Joe Biden’s first actions as president was to begin to fulfill his promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” and fire Peter Robb, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. This was an unusual act for a new president, but Robb’s sacking was of great symbolic importance. Forty years ago, … Peter Robb played a leading role in one of Ronald Reagan’s most important domestic victories: firing the striking air traffic controllers. Reagan’s lesson is one that Biden wouldn’t dare heed, and that is a lesson we can learn about the new president himself. …
… The question of what to do about the impending strike roiled the Reagan administration. At a contentious Cabinet meeting on Aug. 3, 1981, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and others debated what to do. In addition to the economic and management issues, there was also a political wrinkle. PATCO had endorsed Reagan. At the time, unions were more powerful than they are today, and they were also somewhat more bipartisan. Alienating a union that would support a Republican was risky.
According to Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, Reagan watched his team debate matters for about 15 minutes without saying much of anything. The whole time, “he was writing on his yellow pad, writing, writing, writing.” When Reagan was done, he said, “Excuse me, fellows, but let me just read you something here. Tell me what you think about it.” Deaver recalled that the 411-word draft Reagan then read “was the statement he gave in the Rose Garden about half an hour later, word for word. Nobody changed anything.”
It’s worth reading in its entirety. Reagan said, in part, “We cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being. … It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”